Portrait of the island artist
The portrait wasn’t meant to be anything special, but it was. Chris Dawson’s drawing of the artist Graham Foster was named a finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s prestigious Members Only competition, selected from more than 1,000 works. He spoke with Lifestyle about the experience.
How did the portrait of Graham come about?
Graham is my next door neighbour, which is great as we tend to see each other’s work quite a lot. Graham was over one day viewing a charcoal piece I had just finished and I mentioned to him that it would be cool if I did a portrait of him — an artist drawing an artist. He also has a great character and look, which I thought would translate well to a drawing.
Once I had finished the piece I was super pleased with the result (as was he) and thought it would be a good fit for the Portrait Society competition.
It’s hard for most people to find the time to be able to sit hours on end for a portrait so I had Graham pop over and we did a photoshoot. I took a bunch of reference photos after staging the lights and went from there. I will admit I was a bit nervous showing him the finished drawing, but his reaction was awesome and it was received well.
When did you find out you were shortlisted?
There were 1,268 entries this year and Graham’s drawing is a winning piece as a finalist. Basically, there are a few different categories you can enter in and I entered Graham’s drawing in the Commissioned Portrait category. There were awards given to winners [one through ten] and then there were a selected few finalists. I was extremely happy to be chosen as a finalist as the competition is open to paintings, drawings and sculptures and, more often than not, paintings are the majority of winners.
I believe there were three drawings, including mine, that were chosen in the Commissioned category. The work is of really high quality also and there are definitely a few names selected as winners which I admire, so it is great to be among them. The winning pieces can be seen on the Portrait Society’s Facebook page and website.
What’s the piece of work you’re most proud of and why?
I’m proud of most of the work I do, especially at the time it is completed. I try to maintain a high (what I believe is high) standard in all work, but as the years go on I learn from each piece to produce work that I hope is getting stronger and stronger.
Three Queens was a great painting for me as it was a step in a different direction and ended up getting some great recognition in the Charman Prize 2015 as overall winner and also being shortlisted for the BP Portrait in 2016.
Do you submit to overseas competitions often?
This is the second time I have exhibited to the Portrait Society’s online competition. They also have an annual in-person competition with cash prizes, which takes place every April or so. I haven’t submitted any work yet to that one, but if I can get a piece done in time I will do so for early next year.
I also like to exhibit to the BP Portrait Award, which takes place in the National Portrait Gallery in London. I’m hoping to have something ready to submit in January for that.
That’s a tough competition; on average I believe there are 2,500 to 3,000 international entries. My painting Three Queens was shortlisted for the BP Award back in 2016, [coming in] the top 350 entries, but unfortunately did not make the top 50, which makes up the travelling show.
The tough part of entering these international competitions is if you do get shortlisted, you must send the work over in person. That can become rather pricey.
Where is Three Queens now?
Three Queens is in the collection of John Charman, [the businessman and art collector].
Your biography says you started drawing/sketching at a young age. Who encouraged you?
I was doodling, sketching, and playing around with paint and pencils when I was young, pre 12 years old. I started to take sketching a bit more seriously when I realised that I could draw objects in front of me — whether it be a plant, a bottle, etc — and make them look somewhat real on paper.
This was the turning point, I believe, that made me want to keep pushing and striving to get better. I must have been 14 years old or so.
My mom was very encouraging and she would buy pencils and paints so I could practise. At that age, drawing had to compete with football and bikes and the football and bikes would win over the drawings most times.
I remember visiting the artist [Alfred] Birdsey in his studio when I was about 14 or so and it was very inspiring after seeing his paintings everywhere and chatting with him.
In high school at Saltus, my art teacher, Vaughn Evans, introduced different mediums and methods, which opened up my eyes to new and exciting possibilities.
Is it difficult as a working artist in Bermuda?
I’m pretty sure it is difficult as a working artist anywhere in the world, which is why a lot of artists teach. But yes, it has its moments of extreme happiness and the opposite. For the size of Bermuda, the art scene is good and there are quite a lot of people that support the arts here. Luckily, people have gravitated to my style of work and it helps in securing commissions of portraits, still lifes, etc — whether it be in charcoal, pencil or oil paint.
Have you considered moving elsewhere to get more exposure?
Exposure is relatively easy to get online through social media these days. There is an instant global connection and I have met many artists and patrons through social media.
I have also had a few galleries outside of Bermuda approach me after viewing work they have seen online. I would move elsewhere to be closer to museums, [if only] so that when I’m looking for inspiration, I would be able to go and visit paintings in the flesh.
I get plenty of inspiration looking at works of contemporary and past paintings/drawings online, but there is nothing quite like viewing the actual piece in front of you.
What’s your next step?
I’m constantly trying to push myself to elevate the standard of my work to higher levels. My ideas are ever-changing, my methods also. I’m exploring a lot of charcoal work at the moment, but I need to get back to some painting.
I want to start doing more still lifes and themed figure portraits in oils again next year. I’ve been following the work of Amaya Gurpide recently, and her works are ever so inspiring. She does a lot of mixed-media works in charcoal, gouache and chalk on hand-toned paper and they are unbelievable. It makes me want to start toning my paper for some mixed-media pieces.
That’s one of the beauties of art, getting inspired constantly from seeing how other artists approach concepts. I also want to enter more international competitions in the hope to get placed and have my work hang internationally — that’s a lot easier to say than do!
• Read more about Chris Dawson at chrisdawsonfineart.com. You can also follow him on Facebook: Chris Dawson Fine Art Studio and Instagram: @chrisdawsonfineart. Visit the Portrait Society of America at portraitsociety.org or look for them on Facebook